Development authority, city leaders react to 2021 letter going public, discuss affair investigation and more

Published 6:51 pm Friday, June 16, 2023

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New documents released this week by Georgia Transparency have brought into question how city leaders and the LaGrange Development Authority are working together, and whether animosity exists following an investigation into an alleged affair and the development authority’s decision to break away from the city of LaGrange.

A letter dated Dec. 26, 2021, from Scott Malone and Kelley Bush of the LaGrange Development Authority, filed a formal complaint with former Mayor Jim Thornton about City Manager Meg Kelsey, accusing her of a “systematic, targeted, malicious campaign to defame, discredit and destroy” their reputation, according to the letter.

The letter was written during a city of LaGrange investigation, launched by Kelsey and handed over to the LaGrange Police Department, into whether or not Malone and Bush were in a romantic relationship. Kelsey said the investigation did not find evidence of an inappropriate relationship.

The letter by Malone and Bush was published June 11 by the Georgia Transparency website, owned by self-proclaimed first amendment auditor Russell Pickron, and its authenticity was verified via an open record request from The LaGrange Daily News. Pickron attended the most recent LaGrange City Council meeting and asked three times during public comment why Kelsey was still employed. City Councilman Mark Mitchell responded in a heated back and forth, saying the council fully supports Kelsey.

The LDN filed an open record request for any FOIA requests for the Dec. 26, 2021, letter that have occurred in 2023. Terry Stanford, who is running for LaGrange City Council, filed the only request, and it was a verbal request, on June 7. Stanford was sent the letter on June 9.

Stanford confirmed Friday in an interview that he gave the letter to both Georgia Transparency and the LDN on June 9-10. The LDN received the letter, then submitted an open record request on Monday, June 12 to confirm its validity.

Stanford said his goal in releasing the letter is to “be open and clear with the public” and all he wants is to support freedom of the press and to inform citizens what is going on. Stanford said he paid Pickron $200 to build his campaign website, but that was the extent of Georgia Transparency’s involvement with his campaign. When reached for comment by the LDN, Pickron would not confirm that he had built Stanford’s website or say where he received the Dec. 26, 2021, letter.

“I’m not involved in anybody’s political campaign,” Pickron said.

With the election so close, officials interviewed were asked if the timing of the letter’s release might be political in nature.

“It’s very political, we believe. Isn’t it sort of coincidental with an election coming up that it comes out? We’d obviously prefer that the letter not be out in the public, but it’s there,” said Speer Burdette, chair of the LaGrange Development Authority, who said he had no idea how the letter had been released publicly. “Quite honestly, as you read that letter, there are some things you prefer wouldn’t be there, but it also confirms the investigation and the clearing of any misunderstanding of an inappropriate relationship in my opinion, so if anybody has it, there’s your proof it was looked at and there was nothing inappropriate there.”

Stanford said it’s not politically motivated, noting the letter should’ve been public knowledge months ago, as should have discussions on a wastewater pump station placed outside the city limits.  He also believes the city should’ve followed up with a third-party investigation, which does not appear took place.

“This should’ve been released to the public when the complaint was filed and shouldn’t have been held 11 months for the council to look at, then for the mayor to make an agreement not to do anything with it and then leave office,” Stanford said.

Stanford said releasing the letter has nothing to do with his opponent, Jim Arrington, who was serving on the city council at the time of the investigation.

“This is not politically motivated by timing,” Stanford said. “This was released, and this was what was requested. This is what the people have been talking about way before I even decided to go in politics. So it’s not the timing of me releasing this against Jim Arrington. This has nothing to do with Jim Arrington. That letter has all to do with the management of the city.”



Malone and Bush deferred comment on this story to the men who chair the boards that oversee the development authority — Speer Burdette, chair of the LaGrange Development Authority, and Frank McRae, chair of the Development Authority of LaGrange. However, both Malone and Bush made it clear in their 2021 letter that they took offense to Kelsey’s investigation into whether they were having a romantic relationship.

The investigation occurred at a time when Malone had asked for Bush to receive a $15,000 raise, which Kelsey said is beyond the normal 5% raise city employees receive. Although she is not now, Bush was a city of LaGrange employee at that time. The raise was going to be paid for by the development authority, according to Malone’s letter.

Kelsey, who sits on the LaGrange Development Authority board in her capacity as city manager, said she was unaware that Malone was going to ask for the raise during a Zoom meeting that occurred in the midst of COVID-19. She said Burdette tabled discussion on the salary increase after Kelsey made it clear she wasn’t expecting it. Kelsey said she was then made aware by the development authority that there were allegations that Bush and Malone were in a relationship, which prompted an investigation.

Just before Christmas break in 2021, Kelsey said Malone agreed to take a polygraph test regarding the investigation. When they returned from break, she said Malone refused to take a polygraph. In the LPD report, Malone said he felt he was “being set up” and changed his mind.

It was at that point, on Dec. 26, 2021, that Malone and Bush sent the now-public letter to then-Mayor Jim Thornton.

“We will not participate in a process that has the primary accuser also serving as the judge, jury and expected executioner in a situation she has intentionally perpetuated utilizing all of the city resources at her disposal to do so,” the letter from Malone and Bush reads, referring to Kelsey. “She has developed a pattern of wielding her power to get whatever intended outcome she prefers, whether justly or unjustly. It has been an egregious violation of our rights, an absolute abuse of power and 100% defamatory in nature.”

On Dec 27, 2021, Kelsey wrote a letter to Malone, telling him he was being placed on administrative leave as an investigation into whether he violated policy 3.03.6, “social relationships of a sexual nature with employees under (your) direct line of supervision.”

Kelsey said she came down with COVID in the midst of the investigation, but she turned it over to the LaGrange Police Department, who found no evidence of an affair. It was not a criminal investigation, but Kelsey asked the LPD to investigate so she was not involved directly. The investigation report from Sgt. Robert Moore says the findings were not sustained, noting that “this investigation failed to reveal any evidence of an inappropriate relationship of a sexual nature between Scott Malone and Kelley Bush.”

Malone said in the LPD investigation report that he and Bush are great friends and that he was just trying to help Bush through a “difficult time in her life.”

Moore notes he spoke to individuals who brought forward the allegations and determined their suspicions were based solely on rumor with no firsthand knowledge that an affair actually took place.

“After the investigation was done, we sat down in a room. I said we needed to move forward, there were no findings of an inappropriate relationship. I did not terminate his employment,” Kelsey said. “I obviously knew about the letter [Malone wrote]. I said we needed to move forward for the better of our community, you’re doing a good job, and that’s what needs to happen.”

Kelsey said at that point she took herself out of the equation and put Assistant City Manager Bill Bulloch in charge of day-to-day oversight of the development authority.

Since then, the development authority has separated itself from the city, including moving its offices from inside of city hall to a location on Lafayette Square.



Burdette said outside of a two-to-three-year timeframe between 2020 and 2022, the development authority was always a separate entity from the city of LaGrange. The police investigation into the alleged affair notes that Malone and the development authority were moved under the city of LaGrange in July 2020.

Burdette said the financials of the development authority are combined into the financial statement of the city of LaGrange for audit purposes, but operationally they are separate entities. Before moving under the city, the development authority had been located at the LaGrange-Troup County Chamber of Commerce. The development authority’s board members are appointed by the LaGrange City Council.

“We had this idea that we were so connected to the city that it would make sense for them to be a part of the city,” Burdette said. “… We felt like having it all consolidated there, as they needed legal things done, contracts done, made a lot of sense. It did [make sense,] until it didn’t.”

McRae said the organizations were separated in the early fall of 2022 after being under the city for three years. In time, Burdette said they realized there were reasons the development authority was always separated from the city, and the board felt it was best to again separate.

Burdette said the investigation played a role in the separation.

“We needed to separate. Period,” Burdette said. “Certainly, that was another benefit of separating.”

He said the investigation and the letter sped up the separation process, though the development authority had already been discussing needing to separate again.



Two projects involving the city and development authority, one mentioned in Malone’s letter and one not, have also become public discussions over the last few weeks. Both Burdette, McRae, Kelsey, and Edmondson say both are resolved.

One of the projects involves a wastewater pump station from 2005 that was constructed near the Troup County Jail, well before the current administration was in place. Essentially, bond proceeds for the project were meant to go toward infrastructure at Ridley Lake.

Instead, the pump station was placed near the jail and a line was run near Bryant Lake, with the line terminating before reaching Ridley Lake.

“My first reaction was it’s not at Ridley Lake, but to have infrastructure at Ridley Lake, you have to do this,” Burdette said. “We now have Remington coming to Ridley Lake, and we are going to have to put infrastructure there, so we’re going to need this.”

Burdette said the issue came up because the development authority had something on their books named “Ridley Lake infrastructure”, but there was no infrastructure there. The journal entry had come over from the city.

The city and development authority reviewed the bond documents and realized that as long as the infrastructure was in the city, it didn’t matter if it was placed at Ridley Lake.

But there was a problem: the wastewater pump station was actually built approximately 1,500 feet outside the city limits.

Since Jeff Todd serves as the attorney for both the city and the development authority, both sides hired separate attorneys. The development authority was told it cannot have assets on its books that aren’t in the city limits.

Burdette said both sides went into their accounting records and determined there was just over $731,000 spent outside the city limits.

Burdette said both entities made adjustments to their books, auditors cleared it and the issue is resolved.

“The entry we made on our books was to reduce the infrastructure number by $731,000 and to show a receivable from the city,” Burdette said. “The city is not going to pay us $731,000, but we are getting ready to have to do more infrastructure at Ridley Lake for Remington to come in, and the first $731,000 of that will be satisfying that receivable.”

He said the issue was resolved at the last development authority board meeting.

“At the end of the day, it was nothing, and it literally has been resolved,” Burdette said.

The Remington project was announced in November 2021 and included an investment of $100 million and 856 jobs to Troup County. McRae said Remington, which is temporarily located in the Callaway South property, is close to purchasing property near Ridley Lake.

The other project, which was mentioned in Malone’s 2021 letter, was for the Callaway South tract, which is approximately 1200 acres of property owned by the Callaway Foundation near Sewon Boulevard. Malone and Bush claimed that the city was saying the authority was obligated to pay off a $7 million bond for that site.

Burdette was president of the Callaway Foundation for 16 years, retiring in 2018. He said he actually made the agreement for that Callaway South property with the late Tom Hall, who was the city manager before Kelsey took over.

Basically, there’s an agreement for when the land sells, with the Callaway Foundation getting $10,000 for every acre sold, and the city being reimbursed for any money it spent on infrastructure.

“When I heard they were disagreeing on that, I said ‘wait a minute guys,’” Burdette said. “I was part of putting the agreement together.’”

Burdette said the original purpose of the agreement was to give everyone a reason to work toward developing and selling the land.

“We tried to get everyone on the same motivation, that everyone has an economic reason for seeing it sell,” he said.

He said there’s no disagreement between the city and development authority on that property.



The letter from Malone and Bush gets into several allegations against Kelsey, accusing her of hiring her friends and claiming a “mean girl clique” exists in city hall.

They claim that she only hires her friends, an assertion Kelsey strongly denies, pointing to the new police chief, Garrett Fiveash, as an example of someone she didn’t know who was hired to a prominent position in the city. The letter refers directly to the hiring of Katie Van Schoor, who works as the city of LaGrange’s marketing/communications manager. Kelsey said she had a knowledge of who Van Schoor was because she was a news anchor in Columbus.

“I think her track record speaks for her,” Kelsey said of Van Schoor. “She is more than capable and has done an excellent job with what I’ve given her to do at the city.”

Despite the letter’s claim that Kelsey was leading a “defamation campaign” against Malone and Bush, Kelsey said she simply did her job investigating the alleged affair and says there’s no vendetta against Malone or Bush.

“I have the duty and obligation to investigate it,” she said.

When asked if she feels Malone and Bush have a vendetta against her, Kelsey refused to comment.

Malone and Bush’s letter asks for a third-party investigation, funded by the authority, into all of the information in the letter, as well as the alleged affair. It does not appear any third-party investigation took place.

In November 2022, Thornton wrote a letter to Burdette and McRae, signed by the city council at that time, recognizing the separation of the development authority from the city of LaGrange and expressing support for Kelsey. The letter was written almost a month after Thornton had announced his decision to resign as mayor, which was Oct. 4. Thornton’s final day in office was Nov. 23.

“Frankly, we are concerned about certain narratives circulating about the reasons behind this transition and the level of support of the mayor and council for the transition,” Thornton wrote. “Please be advised the mayor and council are supportive of the transition and furthermore have complete confidence in the city manager to handle all aspects of the transition on behalf of the city … The mayor and council continue to have the utmost confidence in the performance of the city manager and her work on behalf of the city.”

Thornton also noted that he expected the sides to be able to work together.

“Nothing inherent in the new structure will prevent the city and authorities from cooperating and continuing to work together for the growth of our community, as has been the case for decades,” the letter reads. “We certainly expect that cooperation and work to continue.”



All parties interviewed for this story — Kelsey, Edmondson, Burdette and McRae — said despite the friction the city and development authority are working together.

“When the letter came out, there was some friction there when they were in city hall,” Edmondson said. “Since then, they’re no longer in city hall. They have their own building, and they’re operating independently on their own. But I feel as though we still have a good working relationship.”

Edmondson was asked if the relationship has improved over the 18 months since Malone and Bush wrote their letter.

“I wouldn’t say it’s improving, but we’re working professionally,” Edmondson said. “I use that word — [professionally]. And when you’re working in a professional manner, you don’t have to always agree with everything. But you have to have a professional manner that you can get at least get along and get the work done for the city.”

Edmondson said he is in communication with Malone, is invited to their meetings and feels the level of communication is open. The mayor was asked directly about a rumor that Malone ran his campaign for mayor.

Edmondson said Malone was involved in his campaign, calling him supportive, but he said Malone did not run his campaign. Burdette said he was unaware of those rumors, but he did not see it as a conflict of interest if Malone was involved in the mayor’s campaign.

Burdette said the city and development authority are working well with one another.

“It clearly was a personnel issue. We have a good working relationship with the city of LaGrange,” Burdette said.

He expressed his support for Malone and Bush.

“Things are going great with our development authorities,” Burdette said. “We are being very successful.”